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Murder cloud or no murder cloud, Jenny’s heart leapt to be in the sky again. As the mountain fell away beneath her, replaced by the vast dark sea and gunmetal sky, she felt that familiar shedding of cares that came with life-or-death piloting. The sky today was fantastically complex: wind currents in a dozen directions, lightning arcing through the ice crystals of the high sky, no less than three squalls drifting back and forth. Only the gas mask bumping against her right thigh, and the heavier satchel bouncing on her left, reminded her how dire things were back in the real world.
Raven was a fantastic success, though. She’d had doubts about the lift system, but the craft seemed to be gaining altitude of its own accord. In minutes, they’d closed half the height distance to the castle–all without turning around.
“Uncle Griff!” she shouted to the worried, bearded old man beside her. He nodded to show he’d heard.
“Are we climbing too fast!?”
“Not for Raven!” he yelled back. “The problem is with the sky!”
“How did we screw up the sky?”
“We didn’t!” Dr. Griffin pointed. “That did!”
At first, Jenny thought he was indicating one of the squalls. Then she realized the squall itself was just the leading line of a weather front that was shoving it from behind. The front was just a wall of air she might not have been able to make out at first…except–
–yeah. It was definitely green.
And her uncle was definitely pale. “You mean the Ash Cloud is helping our lift?”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense! It’s what happened to the last Harpooneers!”
“What?” Jenny cried. “That’s the answer? They didn’t have the right design–they just flew on the right day?”
“We’ve got less time than we thought,” Griff shouted, shooting a look down at the swiftly receding Rust Town.
“How fast is it moving?”
“Not sure yet,” he retorted. “Let me do some math.”
He was joking, somewhat hysterically, but at some point during their next wing adjustment they both started actually doing the calculations. Jenny could tell, because he always wanted to tug his beard while he worked out numbers, but couldn’t because he was strapped into the pilot bar. His arms twitched.
Later–seconds later, true, but too late to make a difference–Jenny would realize that trying to figure out the Ash Cloud’s speed and trajectory had distracted them. That, and being so far from Nashido gave them a false sense of security about anything that might come flying at them from that direction.
As it was, their first contact with the Sphere of every Ruster’s dreams was a stone whistling through the air.
“How the hell did that miss?” Jenny asked as they banked hard to starboard. “They should have hit. We deserved to get hit.”
“We have an enemy on the castle,” her uncle said with certainty.
“But the only person up there–” Jenny broke her thought off to help steady them on a long, orbiting course to the west of the castle “–is the guy we’re trying to save.”
A second stone whistled through the air and Griffin jerked them both hard backward to get clear. They were fleeing out of range, backing up from the island even as they gained ever more altitude to level with it.
Kio, Jenny thought, what exactly are you?
Raptor strode determinedly through the halls of the Outer Citadel, climbing down ladders and bursting through trapdoors like the captive raven was running out of time. Kio scampered in his wake, babbling all the while.
“We can’t trust Medwick to man all the artillery by himself, can we?” he asked as they paced through the lower-forward solarium. “He’s just alone with all those bone–those Neogah. They might distract him.”
“I know you and Medwick had an inauspicious first meeting,” Raptor said without turning around. “You crushed his staff in an elevator, if I recall right. But I would trust him with my life, and you must as well.”
“I, um–” Kio spoke fast, hoping to stop Raptor before he passed the next door. The wooden, iron-enforced exit to the solarium had become a barrier of untold power.
Karla was on the other side. Raptor could not be allowed to see her.
“I want to destroy them myself,” he said, affecting an expression of heroic rage. “I want to take down those Harpooneers. If I personally stop them from poisoning the world, I’ll–I’ll earn my place among the statues. The mosaics.”
He trailed off.
Raptor wasn’t moving toward the door anymore. He had turned, and was fixing Kio with a cold stare.
“My lord of Rokhshan,” he said. “Do you understand how your ancestors survived to build statues of themselves?”
Kio swallowed. His fingers unconsciously traced the lifting rune on his face.
A Neogah dove past the window, seeking some invisible prey.
“Bravery,” he stammered. “Honor. Piety.”
“Piety,” Raptor repeated. The folds of his cloak rippled in the draft. “Toward who?”
“Is defiance piety, Lord Rokhshan?”
“Of…” Raptor was too close to the door. Far too close. “Of course not.”
Raptor smiled. “I’m glad we understand each other.”
Then he pushed through the door. His footsteps pounded toward the hangar, and Kio, trembled with every step, raced after him.
Karla was trapped. Bound in a net, bound in iron-hard claws.
In a human body she could never escape this place. She fought to remain raven, thinking of the sky, of the endless secret places her animal mind reached. She thought of the heartsphere and its infinite darkness. She tried not to think of Kio.
Her wings tried to lengthen into arms–no, she did not know what arms were–her talons into legs–she had never had legs–and every word she thought in the human tongue was poison, contaminating her, dragging her back.
The bone dragon that had siezed her was closing the distance toward Nashido. Time was running short. Her plan had to adjust.
She would get one shot at this.
The sight of the hangar soaring close–close enough to see the calendar scratches gouged into the floor–provoked panic in her threshold-trapped mind: I was out! I got out! Don’t take me back to that prison!
She forced the terror away, with the power of having no other choice. All the Rusters needed her. Only Kio could help her.
Just as the bone dragon broke hard in midair and folded its wings to fit into the cavernous open room, she saw him run down the stairs.
Her almost-human heart hammered. What was this? What strange membrane did it break through to see a loved one for the first time, after everything, everything, had changed?
Then she noticed the man with him.
The last of her raven brain could tell. Lines of darkness radiated off him. He was tall, lean, angular, clean. A predator. She, his prey, was caught in a net.
The man reached the bottom of the steps and stood with his arms folded, awaiting his meal. Kio stood behind him.
Why was Kio behind him?
She scrunched up her bird-body as tightly as she could, forcing the dragon to pull the net taut around her to keep her still.
The claws opened. Karla plummeted toward the stone floor. Right as she landed, she relinquished the barrier in her mind.
Her human limbs splayed out, tearing through the net with sudden sheer presence and size. The strands scraped her skin, but she gritted out the pain, focusing on being able to run when she landed.
What she hadn’t counted on–she realized as she straightened up–was the dragon landing first.
The creature swept over the heads of Kio and the other man with surprising grace, landing on the steps behind them and cutting off any escape. Karla tensed, ignoring the blood pooling from her cuts.
She looked Kio in the eye.
Karla, he signaled in their language. I’m sorry.
For what? she said as best she could.
The bone dragon leered. The strange man stepped forward.
“So the first Harpooneer to arrive has contaminated herself in the Heartsphere,” he said. “Medwick was right to fear you.”
The rain clouds whistled below their feet. The wind soared high above. Karla tried to think.
She heard a rasp of metal on leather and refocused. The man was drawing a long sword through a loop on his belt.
“I am sorry for your failure at…whatever you were trying to do. But the source must be protected.”
Karla looked up.
The sword flashed. The second it did, Kio, seeming to move under something else’s power, leapt for the stranger’s arm.
The blade crashed down inches to the left of where Karla had just been. The man swore in an alien language.
Karla was already on the move–one bound took her to the elevator platform that led up to her workshop. With two sharp kicks, she knocked the hinges out of two of the four cables, and grabbed one of the loose wires.
As Kio struggled with the man he’d been following, as the leather wings of bone dragons swooped in to converge on her, she rode the cable up, using the lift platform as a counterweight. The wooden slats smashed into the calendar, breaking apart on impact.
Kio had saved her life.
But how had he ever let it get this far? What had he done? What was he part of?
Karla leapt clear of the rushing cable and landed on her feet amid the braziers where the first Raven had been born. Then, nauseated from the transformation, head spinning with the weight of betrayal, she dove through the window to the roof, and kept running.
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